As President Donald Trump continues to bluster and tweet his way through a chaotic presidency, the Middle East is simmering dangerously close to a boiling point. Wars in Yemen and Syria are still burning hard, the feud between Qatar and the so-called Quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain trundles on with no apparent end in sight, Iran continues to flex its military muscles, and both Iraq and Egypt struggle to contain terrorist attacks.
Once again, all but forgotten are the Palestinians.
Israel, buoyed by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, continues, in flagrant disregard of international law and UN resolutions, to build settlements in the West Bank. And Trump threatens to cut off US aid because the Palestinians refused to meet his Vice President Mike Pence after the president had provocatively named Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
“They disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them,” he said during a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The president said he was prepared to withhold “hundreds of millions” of dollars in aid, adding “That money is on the table and that money’s not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace”.
The peace proposal that Trump likes best – and that his son-in-law and special Middle East adviser Jared Kushner is reportedly pursuing together with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – looks remarkably like a real estate transaction. Unsurprising, given that the 36-year-old Kushner has no previous experience in diplomacy, but an awful lot of it in wheeling and dealing in the high-stakes world of New York property ventures.
It has been called “the sanctuary plan”. It involves the Palestinians surrendering some 50 percent of the West Bank to Israel. Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank that are encircled by Israeli settlement projects would fall under the administrative control of Jordan. For their part, the Egyptians would agree to cede North Sinai to a new Palestinian entity contiguous with Gaza. The capital of this strange agglomeration would become a Palestinian town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Abu Dis. Jerusalem whole and undivided would then become the capital of Israel.
It is, of course, a madness. What would cause the Palestinians to give up their rights in the West Bank in return for a piece of Egypt riddled with terrorism? Why would Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi turn over more of his land, having already been roundly attacked for giving up two small islands in the Red Sea to the Saudis?
But if one year of the Trump presidency has taught us anything, it is that the most extreme and ludicrous of positions can morph quickly into a crude and ugly reality.
Now two stories are helping to nudge the sanctuary narrative along. The first was broken by the New York Times on February 3 about military support the Israelis have been providing Egypt in its fight against Ansar Beit al Maqdis (ABM), an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) on the Sinai Peninsula. In 2014 ABM pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed ISIL caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The peninsula was declared Wilayat Sinai, the Sinai Province of ISIL.
Over the years, the Egyptians have lost hundreds of police and soldiers in battling the terrorists in Sinai. In November 2017, the ISIL affiliate carried out an attack on a Sufi mosque that left more than 300 people dead. It was the single worst terrorist atrocity in Egypt’s recent history.
According to the New York Times, what it called a “secret alliance” has enabled the Israelis to carry out more than 100 air raids inside Egypt against the ABM over the past two years. The Egyptians have denied the claim, but crucially the Israelis have neither confirmed nor denied it. Using unmarked drones and fighter jets with their markings concealed, the Israelis have been trying to degrade the fighters’ military capability, something that the Egyptian army has not been successful in doing.
To return to the analogy of a real estate deal, if you are Jared Kushner and you want to evict problem tenants from a highly desired property with as little awkwardness as possible, you have to offer them something in return, and that something can’t be a property overrun with heavily armed gangsters. So the Israelis are doing their bit to help secure the neighbourhood.
For his part, President el-Sisi desperately needs to keep both the Saudis and the Israelis on side as he struggles with a sluggish economy and growing disenchantment with his heavy-handed rule. Saudi cash to the tune of several hundreds of millions of dollars will help keep the economy and el-Sisi afloat. For the Egyptian president, giving up a troublesome North Sinai may seem a small price to pay.
For Mohammed bin Salman, a solution to the Palestinian “problem” that he helps to bring about, one that is very favourable to Israel, means that he can then draw on the Israelis – who after all have nuclear arms – to stand up to Iran in the struggle for regional hegemony. The US, grateful too, will put their military might into confronting Iran. And the Egyptians now living in North Sinai? Well, that is a question to be sorted out down the road presumably.
Meanwhile, the forced relocation of large numbers of people is an uncomfortable scenario for the Israelis to contemplate, given the horrific fate of Jews in the Holocaust. What better way to soften Israeli public opinion to a mass eviction of Palestinians than to first launch the deportation of undocumented African immigrants? Some 35,000 are facing precisely that plight.The Netanyahu government has vowed to forcibly repatriate these desperate economic migrants with a take it or leave it offer: $3,500 and a one-way ticket back to Africa, or jail.
Gideon Levy, a columnist for the Israeli daily Haaretz, in denouncing the forced repatriation project, wrote recently about what he called “far-reaching plans that only the extreme right talks about for now”.
With commendable clarity, he lays out what will come next should the government proceed with its efforts to remove the Africans:
“If this mini-expulsion succeeds, expect more to come: prepare for a population transfer. If the first operation is successful, it will buoy hopes for additional expulsions. Israel will learn it can do it; that no one will stop it.”
So while the world sits back and watches, those who will be expelled from what is left of their land will be the Palestinians.
Trump’s desire to pull off the “biggest deal ever” coupled with Saudi money, Israeli backing and Egyptian connivance could see this ugly dream become a reality, one that yet again excludes the Palestinians from having any meaningful say. It is, to put it simply, a nightmare that should never be allowed to see the light of day.